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Chico State

Psychology Major Defies the Odds

Portrait of Leo Simpson
Jason Halley / University Photographer

More than 23,000 age out of the nation’s foster system annually—less than 3 percent of whom will earn a college degree in their lifetime. This is one of four profiles celebrating students in the Promoting Achievement Through Hope (PATH) Scholars program, each of whom is reversing that narrative with the support of staff and their peers. All of the profiles can be accessed in our introductory story.

Trudging across the Chico State campus, Leo Simpson knew they were struggling.

A recent transfer student from Butte College, the adjustment was not what they had anticipated—their close friends did not join them at Chico State, starting a new job and moving into a new apartment were fraught with anxiety, and a tumultuous home life all at once felt like too much.

Seeking control in their life, Leo used an eating disorder to cope. With grades falling and health slipping, they struggled not to lose consciousness while simply walking around campus.

“I was underweight, couldn’t exercise anymore from physical problems or concentrate on school, and was having trouble keeping up with social relationships,” they said. “I physically couldn’t do much else at that point.”

Now, with help from on-campus resources, most stemming from PATH Scholars, the Oroville native will earn their psychology degree in May, closing out Leo’s long journey from foster youth to transfer student to college graduate to aspiring counselor.

“When I graduate, it’ll take a while to sink in that I really did it. It’ll have been seven years at that point that I’ve been doing this college thing,” they said. “I’ll definitely feel proud, because even if it took me a lot longer, and even if the odds were stacked against me, I was still able to do it.”

Leo’s childhood home life was unhealthy early on. As the oldest of two siblings at the time, with a mother struggling with multiple substance abuse issues, they and their family lived below the poverty line, with electricity and water being shut off for months at a time. After their mother was discovered trying to drive her children to school after taking fentanyl, 9-year-old Leo and their younger sister were placed in foster care for about a week.

“I remember a lot of other kids around, I remember everyone being very loud, I remember a lot of yelling,” Leo said. “[My foster mother] had so many kids in her house to deal with, including her own biological children, that I don’t remember feeling any specific warmth or care for me or my sister.”

Simpson smiles and holds a sled with snow all around them.
After graduation, Leo envisions a career as a therapist: “I think I have the skin for it, and I also want to give back in that way that I was given to—and am still being given to—through PATH Scholars.” Photo courtesy of Leo Simpson

The siblings soon returned to live with their biological mother, but by Leo’s senior year in high school, their home life and mental health were eroding. They still graduated on time and began attending Butte College, where they became involved with Inspiring Scholars, that campus’s program to serve former foster youth.

Through Inspiring Scholars, Leo was introduced to Chico State, PATH Scholars, and program coordinator Marina Lomeli through field trips and activities. Thanks to an assist from Lomeli and others, Leo navigated the application process and transferred to Chico State in spring 2019.

The transition, though, was a rough one, and Leo developed unhealthy coping mechanisms, including a dependency on marijuana to deal with their depression.

“I couldn’t focus at all, couldn’t really write anything, and frequently didn’t make it to class because I was too exhausted,” they said.

While Leo continued to lose more weight, they began to feel like there was nothing left to do.

“There were times, particularly when I was at my worst with the [eating disorder], where I thought, ‘You know, maybe it would just be easier to drop all of this, lay here in bed, and just keep getting high and not eat anything until I die,’” they recalled.

Seeing that Leo was a whisper of their former physical self, Lomeli took them aside—an act Leo called “lifesaving.”

“I remember Marina saying, ‘I need to ask if you’re eating, because people have been saying things to me,’” Leo said. “That honesty, that outright care was what I needed, somebody to look at me and say, ‘Hey, I can see something’s going on.’”

Leo came clean, telling Lomeli they were having problems, they were emotionally and physically drained, and were having a hard time functioning. She immediately connected them with an eating disorder counselor at the WellCat Counseling Center. In order to focus on their health, Leo took a planned educational leave, withdrawing from classes during the spring and fall 2020 semesters.

Portrait of Leo Simpson
In navigating their college career, Leo said earning a college degree means hope: “These situations are not forever, we are not powerless, there’s always something you can do, even if it doesn’t seem like much at the moment.”

With space to focus on their well-being, Leo called on advice from an unlikely source—their biological mother.

“She learned that sometimes you just have to take it one moment at a time, even if it’s a second at a time,” they said. “That helped me to not look ahead and get anxious and overwhelmed about everything to the point of just wanting to quit, to be able to say, ‘There are all these things around me that I need to worry about, but what do I need to figure out right now?’”

If Leo could find the drive to live, they could find the way to earn their degree.

“I always knew I was not going to drop out,” they said. “I feel like I’ve sunk too much time and energy into it to want to drop out, so I always had that little thread to cling on to even when I was at my worst.”

Lomeli assisted Leo every step of the way. She checked in with them, made sure they were following their health plan, and helped them reapply for classes for spring 2021.

Leo’s renewed focus allows them to be present in class and submit their work on time. As a full-time student, they also work full time at the financial services company Robinhood while returning to their weekly novel-writing group. The connection with fellow writers was one of the things that kept them happy every week when they were at their sickest, even if they couldn’t always attend or participate.

Leo’s goal is to become a therapist so they can help people challenged by the things they overcame in their own life, like trauma, eating disorders, and substance abuse. As they prepare to walk across the Commencement stage, it will be more meaningful than simply earning their degree.

“To me, it means hope—it gives me hope that if I could do this, then it can only get better from here,” they said. “If I can do this and beat the odds, then I can do anything.”

The odds are stacked against them. Show PATH Scholars students you believe in their educational dreams and ensure they have the resources to achieve them by making a gift today at